Project Red Box: Bad Idea

by Chris Seibold Jun 29, 2005

When Steve Jobs announced the switch to Intel the Mac community let out one huge collective gasp, waited five seconds and diligently started thinking of the ramifications. The most obvious was the “evil” triumvirate (Microsoft, Dell and Intel) was suddenly reduced to a duo. That observation provides limited entertainment so speculation quickly turned to dual booting Macs or running OS X on white box PCs. Others, looking for a way in which the switch to Intel might usher in an era of Mac computing nirvana, began to mention project Red Box.

For readers unfamiliar with project Red Box the concept is as follows: Apple will whip up a software solution that will allow users to run Microsoft Windows applications without resorting to actually firing up, or purchasing, the Windows operating system. The concept sounds enticing. Apple, for merely the cost of development, suddenly allows users to enjoy the full spectrum of software available on the three largest platforms (Mac, Linux and Windows). Here it should be noted that saying “three largest” is a somewhat misleading inasmuch as it puts Linux and OS X in the same league as Windows. Still the statement is technically true and it serves to illustrate the flexibility of such a solution. At first glance there is nothing not to like about the idea, a Mac user could finally run that crappy landscaping program found on the shelves of the local home improvement center without resorting to A) Virtual PC or B) buying a cheap PC. Clearly, one would think, such a move would be a no-brainer if such a move were technically feasible. While such things certainly seem good on paper reality is often a different story. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences.

Why we all understand, on some level, the idea of unintended consequences still an example may serve us well at this point. Last fall the University of Tennessee was playing Notre Dame in a hotly contested football game. The Vols had a meager seven point lead when they got the ball late in the second quarter. The decision was made to try a deep pass or two in hopes of setting up a quarter ending field goal. The reasoning was obvious: There was very little time left, any intercepted pass would serve the same purpose as a punt and, if they got lucky and scored, the Vols would have a ten-point lead. Unfortunately for the Volunteers the snap was fumbled on the ensuing play from scrimmage. As the quarterback attempted to recover the suddenly slippery pigskin he was rudely met by a burly, yet speedy, member of the Fighting Irish. Reports vary as to the extent of the injury but suffice it to say the joint that once comfortably joined the arm to the shoulder was no longer serving that purpose. The law of unintended consequences coupled with a bad snap had cost the Volunteers their starting quarterback for the remainder of the season.

In the worst-case scenario the consequences of Project Red Box are much more severe than Tennessee’s ill-timed Hail Mary attempt. If it is hard to imagine how project Red Box could have deleterious effects consider the following marketing pitch:

“Where else can you run DOS, Windows, and OS/2 applications at the same time, on the same screen—without letting the hourglass slow you down?”

That blurb is meant to incentivize people to adopt, you guessed it, OS/2 as their operating system of choice. It probably worked in the short term, undoubtedly a few purchasers bought OS/2 for the express purpose of being able to run just about any program they wanted. Developers on the other hand suddenly saw no need to develop anything for OS/2, after all their Windows applications would run equally well inside of OS/2. In essence IBM had handed developers a custom made excuse not to develop applications for their heavily promoted system. Once development all but ceased for consumer oriented OS/2 applications (OS/2 lived on powering ATMs and such) any reason for buying OS/2 went the way of beer at a frat party. With hindsight it seems predictable, why on earth would developers go to the expense of developing two equivalent applications that ran on the same system? Would the same thing happen to Mac software? It is difficult to see why any particular developer would continue to develop applications for both Windows and Mac when the Windows version will run perfectly on the Mac while still appealing to the huge base of Windows users.

Admittedly that would be a worst-case scenario. Perhaps a more probable chain of events would entail hard-core Mac users becoming enamored with the cheap and plentiful software of the Windows world (however execrable the majority of that software may be). Suddenly OS X becomes little more than a shell for running Windows applications and the true benefits of being a Mac user are soon forgotten. Additionally the switchers enticed by the Macs newfound utility would fire up their recently purchased Macs and spend all day using Windows applications. In both cases when the inevitable day came to purchase a new computer the point of buying a Mac would be long gone.

Of course there are individuals who would truly love project Red Box to become a reality. If you’re stuck with using virtual PC or some other workaround for a Windows only application project Red Box would seem like a Godsend. One suspects that these people, while not insubstantial in number, are not a large enough segment of the Mac market to justify taking the risk. The preferable method would, naturally, be for Apple to aggressively expand market share thereby giving developers a financial reason to make their products cross platform. That is achievable goal and likely Apple’s strategy but long-term solutions just aren’t as sexy as the lure of a quick fix.


  • In no way shape or form should Apple be promoting the use of their chief competitor’s product. It only emboldens the belief that Windows should be used and that the Mac OS is just an afterthought for running those nifty shareware apps or “graphics”

    This is at best a 3rd party opportunity. Look for VMware to hop on board with a OS X version of their product that allows the user to run Windows and Linux simultaneously in their own environment. In fact with Intel due to ship CPU’s with VT(Vanderpool Technology) for hardware virtualization support VMware or other companies will simply just hook into the additional benefits of having hardware support.

    This is important for the future. Servers will be heavily virtualized and there’s no reason why Workstations shouldn’t be as well. In fact the next draft of the PCI-Express spec seeks to bring virtualization down to the PCI-Express card. Computers are literally splitting like a Cell and by the end of this century computer busses will have so much bandwidth the typical consumer will not be able to saturate the computer meaning virtualization is likely necessary to keep the computer at it’s most productive state.

    All Apple has to do is sit back and let it happen. Thus they don’t have to support Windows on Macintel in any way.

    hmurchison had this to say on Jun 30, 2005 Posts: 145
  • Gooood point. I dont mind having to use virtual pc at all. Another thing- viruses, spyware, and ads. Although almost irrellevant to a mac user, these are 3 things that windows users (including myself before I got my mac) grudgingly have gotten used to. I dont want to see these things starting to work on my Mac. The whole idea of windows apps working on the mac OS makes me sick, please….stop this haha.

    d e l e t e p l s had this to say on Jun 30, 2005 Posts: 5
  • Good commentary. I think the potential for Windows viruses and spyware being natively supported in Mac OS X is reason enough not to make a Red Box.

    Still, I think there is a middle ground that would work. As Apple has already indicated, while they will not support Windows running on Intel Macs, they will do nothing to specifically prevent an Intel Mac from booting Windows. So I think that is a clear indication to 3rd parties to come out with Windows-for-Macs retail software that basically contains all the drivers necessary for Windows to run. It’s essentially no different than how Virtual PC is marketed today, except you’ll get full speed execution.

    This way, people who REALLY require Windows can obtain it with by paying extra for the software while allowing Apple to continue promoting its message of Mac OS X goodness to developers.

    In this sense, the potential for an Intel Mac to boot Windows offers corporations a clear migration path away from Windows to OS X in a way that minimizes the risk of switching to a new platform. I think there is a lot of value in that, as long as the solution comes from 3rd parties.

    Paul had this to say on Jun 30, 2005 Posts: 31
  • You’re exactly right. This is a bad idea. As an ex OS/2 user I can tell you that it is a vastly superior OS to Win 3.11 and Win95/98/Me. The Workplace Shell was really cool, and nothing like it has been developed for any OS since.

    What happened to OS/2 was that MS kept changing APIs to break apps running in Win/OS2. Then W95 came along,whose apps wouldn’t run at all on OS/2.Combined with IBM’s lack of marketing support, spelt the slow demise of OS/2. Now it wouldn’t run windows apps and the rest of the world had moved onto the windoze bandwagon.

    Longhorn would likely do the same to Redbox if they go down this path.

    ExOS/2User had this to say on Jun 30, 2005 Posts: 1
  • I believe that if a business can use some legacy win apps without booting several OS’s that would be beneficial for Apple, it would allow for a migration without the pain of app retraining, and since it renowned for a more secure environment, and its apps are exceptional. For education, this could be the turnaround for Mac OS to counter any perceived hardware cost impost.  I agree that it may have to be an arms length venture.

    I dont think businesses (large installs) would be favourably receptive to a multi OS machine - its too much of an admin headache, its for the very few or developers.

    hasapi had this to say on Jun 30, 2005 Posts: 1
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